Difficult topics and moments

If we want students to be critical thinkers, global citizens and thoughtful participants in democracy, we should help them learn how to develop the necessary skills to engage with sensitive and controversial issues in the classroom. Difficult moments are more likely to arise with certain charged topics, but might occur at any time, as students give voice to unquestioned assumptions or implicit biases about others. Becoming more comfortable facilitating difficult dialogues helps faculty in every discipline foster more inclusive class climates and enhance critical thinking ability in their students.

Below, you’ll find strategies for managing difficult moments, or you can download a handout of related suggestions, here: CATL, Facilitating Discussion in Polarized Times, 2020.

Scaffolding Discussions of Controversial Topics

Structuring and setting up supports to ensure productive discussions of controversial topics can be thought of in several phases: what we do to generate community and trust from the start of the semester, how we ask students to prepare before a specific discussion begins, how we facilitate the conversation in the moment, and how we invite and encourage students to reflect on the discussion and integrate new knowledge with existing ideas.

From the Start:

  • At the beginning of the semester, set up expectations for classroom etiquette (such as no interrupting, criticizing ideas rather than attacking people, etc.), so that students trust one another and feel part of the learning community. Review these “group norms” or “agreements” together periodically, particularly before discussions on sensitive topics.
  • Take the time to build community – including knowing one another’s names and fostering connections between students in the course.

To Prepare for Discussion:

  • Choose interesting and informative readings, cases, or other preparatory materials that introduce a range of perspectives. Aim for more than two perspectives, when possible, so that the students don’t fall into oversimplified polarities.
  • Before a discussion, give students time to consider their reasoning and gather their evidence for their views. Help students figure out where their positions come from – whether experiences, observations, reasoning, values, or evidence.

During the Conversation:

  • Begin the discussion with a reminder of any group agreements and their purpose in the classroom. Empower everyone in the room to gently point out any violations of those agreed-upon norms, and model that process by inviting students to rephrase or rethink comments that do not align with the letter or spirit of those guidelines.
  • Structure class discussions to insure that a variety of voices are heard. That might mean starting with smaller groups and assigning or randomly calling on a reporter for each group, doing circular exercises in which everyone speaks, or using polling (student response systems).
  • Consider a format like Deliberative Dialogue where a class systematically evaluates the pros and cons of at least 3 positions after agreeing upon ground rules. The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation offers many options for dialogue and deliberation formats.
  • Model (with your own behavior) patient and respectful listening and interacting, question asking, and the ability to understand a variety of theories and perspectives.
  • Try to be as unbiased as possible in your response to students’ remarks on a specific topic, even when you do not agree. Correct a wrong assumption with evidence so that they become more informed and learn from the interaction—rather than shutting the student down simply because you do not agree with their ideology.
  • Keep the focus on learning and understanding, not winning an argument.
  • Help students tolerate discomfort and expect that the whole class won’t always be able to come to consensus.

Reflecting on and Integrating After the Discussion:

  • Engage students in exercises in which they prove they have listened to and can articulate a position other than their own (as well as their own). Help them see that hearing other perspectives helps us understand our own.
  • Invite students to look back at their initial reasoning and evidence and identify ways that the discussion provided perspectives or evidence that might shift, add nuance to, or otherwise complicate their original thinking.

Dealing with the spontaneous “hot comment” or offensive remark

No matter how much faculty may have tried to set up a respectful environment, sometimes a student might say something that provokes strong feelings and controversy. One example is calling another student “stupid” (which is likely a violation of classroom agreements).

Microaggressions are another example. Microagressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities… that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative… slights and insults… toward individuals of underrepresented status” (Sue et al., 2007). These slights often arise from students’ implicit biases, and reflect automatic, subconscious stereotypes or unquestioned assumptions absorbed from social norms in students’ environments.

When an insult or microaggression is voiced in the classroom, many faculty feel uncertain about how to respond. You might be tempted to choose the path of least resistance, which is to simply ignore the comment and move on. However, students frequently report that they perceive faculty silence and inaction as meaning the professor (and/or other students) agrees with the comment. For students who share identity characteristics that were the target of the microaggression, processing that event, deciding what to say, and wondering if they will be supported if they choose to voice an objection can lead to anger, frustration, chronic stress and fatigue, and a sense that they don’t belong or aren’t welcome in that space (Sue et al., 2009).

However, by interrupting the discussion in the moment when a microaggression occurs, faculty can both reinforce belonging for members of minoritized groups present in the room and foster an inclusive and reflective space in which self-inquiry and perspective-taking help advance students’ learning and growth. Instead of ignoring the comment, in “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom,” Lee Warren suggests ways faculty can help turn a “hot moment” into a productive learning opportunity:

  • Ask all of the students what they might learn from a particular disagreement. This technique gives them responsibility for some of the work and keeps the focus on learning.
  • Take the focus off the individual student who made the remark by saying something like, “Other people think this way. Why do they hold such views?” and then, “Why do those who disagree hold their views?” This allows students to disagree and ideally gets students to deepen their understanding of multiple perspectives. (You can also ask what information students would need in order to be more confident of their own views.)
  • Ask the students to step back and reflect (write) about what they are thinking or feeling.
  • If you can’t figure out a way in the moment to deal with the situation, tell students this seems like an important issue that you would like to take up at a later time. That lets students know you’ve noticed and take the issue seriously and also gives you time to plan strategies for the next class meeting, perhaps ones that include providing resources that frame the controversy.

Sometimes it can be helpful to talk with individual students embroiled in controversy, helping them figure out what they’ve learned or need to learn or what support they might need.

See the blogpost “10 in the moment responses for addressing micro- or macroaggressions in classroom” (Pittman, 5/14/20) or additional resources below for further ideas. If you’re an Elon faculty member in the middle of a tricky situation and want to talk confidentially, feel free to call CATL to set up a conversation (x5106).

Other Resources

Difficult discussions in any course or subject impact each student in the room differently. Students who have personal experience related to controversial or traumatic topics, or students from historically marginalized groups who may experience microaggressions on a day-to-day basis across courses, residence life, extracurricular activities, and spaces outside the university are especially vulnerable. While this does not mean such topics should be avoided entirely, it does suggest that we should explore a broader set of principles to help us design courses that create an environment in which students tackle such deep and challenging learning situations with support and resilience. CATL’s pages on Fostering Student Resilience and Trauma Informed Teaching provide a number of suggestions and further resources to help with that process.


Works Cited & Resources

Diane J. Goodman’s Responding to Biased or Offensive Comments suggests instructors should consider their goals and offers multiple options for how to respond.

Harvard University Graduate School Teaching & Learning Lab (2020) Teaching in Times of Stress or Trauma.

Mehl, C. & Haidt, J. (2022). “How to defuse a classroom conflict: Make it more complex“. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (2014) “Engagement Streams Framework [Guide]”.

Obear, K. (2010). How to facilitate triggering situations. Belchertown, MA: Alliance For Change.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–286.

Sue, D. W., Lin, A. I., Torino, G. C., Capodilupo, C. M., & Rivera, D. P. (2009). Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(2), 183.

Thomas, N. & Kennedy, C. (2020) The Post-Election Classroom.

University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning has created a number of helpful guides:

Warren, Lee. (n.d.) “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom.”